The naïve see causal connections everywhere. Consider the fact... the New Jersey lottery twice. The naïve find it irresistible... Coincidences and How to Think about Them

Coincidences and How to Think about Them
Elliott Sober
A Familiar Dialectic
The naïve see causal connections everywhere. Consider the fact that Evelyn Marie Adams won
the New Jersey lottery twice. The naïve find it irresistible to think that this cannot be a coincidence.
Maybe the lottery was rigged or some uncanny higher power placed its hand upon her brow.
Sophisticates respond with an indulgent smile and ask the naïve to view Adams’ double win within a
larger perspective. Given all the lotteries there have been, it isn’t at all surprising that someone would
win one of them twice. No need to invent conspiracy theories or invoke the paranormal – the double
win was a mere coincidence.
The naïve focus on a detailed description of the event they think needs to be explained. The New
York Times reported Adams’ good fortune and said that the odds of this happening by chance are 1 in 17
trillion; this is the probability that Adams would win both lotteries if she purchased a single ticket for
each and the drawings were at random. In fact, the newspaper made a small mistake here; if the goal is
to calculate the probability of Adams’ winning those two lotteries, the reporter should have taken into
account the fact that Adams purchased multiple tickets; the newspaper’s very low figure should thus
have been somewhat higher. However, the sophisticated response is that this modest correction misses
the point. For sophisticates, the relevant event to consider is not that Adams’ won those two lotteries,
but the fact that someone won two state lotteries at some time or other. Given the many millions of
people who have purchased lottery tickets, this is “practically a sure thing” (Diaconis and Mosteller
1989, Myers 2002).
Another example of reasoning about coincidence in which the same dialectic unfolds involves
the fact that my birthday (06061948) occurs at the 16,769,633th position (not counting the initial “3”) of
the decimal expansion of π.1 The probability of this occurring according to the chance hypothesis is
rather small. The naïve might reason that there must be some explanation for why my birthday occurs
just there. Perhaps the number 16,769,633 contains an esoteric message intended just for me. The
sophisticated reply that the probability of my birthday’s occurring somewhere in the first 100 million
digits is actually very high – about 2/3. Given this, there is no reason to think that my birthday’s
showing up where it does is anything but a coincidence.
How the Naive and the Sophisticated Reason
The naïve and the sophisticated2 seem to agree about one thing but disagree about another. Both
apparently rely on a rule of inference that I will call probabilistic modus tollens. This is the idea that if a
hypothesis tells you that what you observe is enormously improbable, then the hypothesis should be
rejected. The naïve think that the hypothesis of Mere Coincidence strains our credulity too much. Since
Go to to see if your birthday appears in the first 100 million digits.
The naïve and the sophisticated are characters in my story; I do not mean to suggest that all sophisticated thinkers in the real
world reason exactly in the way I’ll describe the sophisticated as reasoning.
the hypothesis of Mere Coincidence says that the probability of Adams’s double win is tiny, we should
reject that hypothesis. Sophisticates seem to grant the authority of probabilistic modus tollens, but then
contend that the hypothesis of Mere Coincidence should be evaluated by seeing what it says about the
observation that someone or other wins two state lotteries at some time or other. Since this is very
probable according to the hypothesis of Mere Coincidence, we should decline to reject that hypothesis.
The naïve and the sophisticated thus seem to agree on the correctness of probabilistic modus tollens.
Their disagreement concerns how the event to be explained should be described.
Sophisticates avoid rejecting the hypothesis of Mere Coincidence by replacing a logically
stronger description of the observations with one that is logically weaker. The statement
Evelyn Adams, having bought one ticket for each of two New Jersey lotteries, wins both.
is logically stronger than the statement
Someone at sometime, having bought some number of tickets for two or more lotteries in one or
more states, wins at least two lotteries in a single state.
It is a theorem in probability theory that logically weakening a statement can’t lower its probability – the
probability will either go up or stay the same. In the case at hand, the probability goes up -- way up.
Diaconis and Mosteller (1989, p. 859) say that the relevant principle to use when reasoning about
coincidences is an idea they term the Law of Truly Large Numbers. This says that “with a large enough
sample, any outrageous thing is likely to happen.” They cite Littlewood (1953) as having the same
thought; with tongue in cheek, Littlewood defined a miracle as an event that has a probability of less
than 1 in a million. Using as an example the U.S. population of 250 million people, Diaconis and
Mosteller observe that if a miracle “happens to one person in a million each day, then we expect 250
occurrences a day and close to 100,000 such occurrences a year.” If the human population of the earth
is used as the reference class, miracles can be expected to be even more plentiful.
Two Problems for Sophisticates
Sophisticates bent on using probabilistic modus tollens should be wary about the strategy of
replacing a logically stronger description of the observations with one that is logically weaker. The
reason for wariness is that this strategy allows one to decline to reject hypotheses of Mere Coincidence
no matter what they are and no matter what the data say. Even when there is compelling evidence that
the observations should not be explained by this hypothesis, the hypothesis of Mere Coincidence can be
defended by logically weakening the observations.
Consider, for example, Alfred Wegener’s defense of the hypothesis of continental drift.
Wegener noticed that the wiggles in the east coast of South America correspond exactly to the wiggles
in the west coast of Africa. The pattern is as if a single sheet of paper were torn in two. He also noticed
that the distribution of geological strata down one coast matches the distribution down the other. In
addition, he observed that the distribution of organisms down the two coasts – both fossilized and extant
– shows the same detailed correlation. Wegener argued that this systematic matching should not be
explained by the hypothesis of Mere Coincidence. His preferred alternative was that the continents had
once been in contact and then had drifted apart.
Wegener encountered intense opposition from geophysicists, who didn’t see how continents
could plough through the ocean floor. I will return to this criticism later. My present point is that it
would have been bizarre to counter Wegener’s argument by weakening the data. A sophisticate bent on
retaining the hypothesis of Mere Coincidence could point out that there are billions of planets in the
universe that contain continents separated by wide oceans. If wiggles in coast lines and distributions of
geological strata and of organisms are in each continent independently caused, there surely will exist at
least one pair of continents on some planet or other that exhibits the kind of matching that Wegener
found so interesting. With the data suitably weakened, probabilistic modus tollens tells you not to reject
the hypothesis of Mere Coincidence.
A similar point is illustrated by the accompanying cartoon. If life forms from another planet
turned out to speak English, the irresistible inference would be that we and they have had some sort of
contact in the past. The idea that the detailed resemblance of the two languages is a Mere Coincidence
strains our credulity too much. However, if we wish to hold fast to the belief that the resemblance is a
Mere Coincidence, we can avoid having probabilistic modus tollens force us to reject that hypothesis
merely by weakening our description of what the two languages have in common. Instead of focusing
on the fact that the two languages match in a thousand specific ways, we can restrict our attention to the
modest fact that both contain nouns. We then can reply that it isn’t at all surprising that two languages
should both contain nouns if they developed independently; after all, nouns are useful.3 Notice that I
Darwin (1859, ch. 13) argued that adaptive characters provide poor evidence of common ancestry; it is useless characters
that provide powerful evidence. Darwin (1871, ch. 6) also noticed the parallel epistemological problems connecting
historical linguistics and phylogenetic inference.
just weakened the description of the data in a way that differs from the kind of weakening I considered
in connection with Wegener. I didn’t ask what the probability is that somewhere in the universe two
languages would match even though they evolved independently, though that question might lead to the
same conclusion. This brings out a further problem with the strategy of weakening the data at will.
There are many ways to weaken the data. Which weakening should one employ? Why not simply
replace the data with a tautology?
I began by noting that the naïve seem to think that nothing is a Mere Coincidence. Sophisticates
who weaken their description of the data to avoid rejecting hypotheses of Mere Coincidence seem to
think that everything is a Coincidence. These sophisticates are not just sophisticated – they are jaded.
No correlation, no matter how elaborate and detailed, impresses them. In fact, none can impress them;
their trick of weakening the data works against all comers. What we need is guidance on when the
description of the data may be weakened, not the imperative to always do so, or the permission to do so
whenever we please.
Statistics provides guidance on the question of when one’s description of the data may be
weakened. It is given in the theory of sufficient statistics. R.A. Fisher (1959) introduced this idea in the
context of his theory of point estimation. Suppose you want to estimate a coin’s probability θ of landing
heads when tossed and you assume that the tosses are independent and identically distributed (i.i.d.) -each toss has the same probability of landing heads and the results on some tosses don’t influence the
probabilities of others. To figure out which estimate is best, you toss the coin 1000 times, say, and
obtain a particular sequence of heads and tails. Do you need to use this exact sequence as your
description of the data, or can you just attend to the number of heads (which, let us suppose, was 503)?
As it happens, this weaker description suffices; it is a sufficient statistic in the sense that it captures all
the evidentially relevant information that the exact sequence contains. More specifically, the frequency
of heads is a sufficient statistic in the context of using maximum likelihood estimation as the device for
estimating θ because
Pr(the exact sequence │ θ = p)
Pr(the number of heads │ θ = p)
------------------------------------- = --------------------------------------- .
Pr(the exact sequence │ θ = q)
Pr(the number of heads │ θ = q)
In all these conditional probabilities, I assume that the coin was tossed 1000 times. The reason (3) is
true is that
Pr(the exact sequence │ θ = x) = x503(1-x)497
⎛ 1000⎞ 503
Pr(number of heads│ θ = x) = ⎜
⎟ x (1-x)497
⎝ 503 ⎠
This is why the left-hand and right-hand ratios in (3) must have the same value. The maximum
likelihood estimate of θ is the same whether you use the stronger or the weaker description of the data,
and the likelihood ratio of that best estimate, compared to any inferior estimate, will be the same, again
regardless of which description of the data you use. Notice that what counts as a sufficient statistic
depends on the method of inference you use and on the range of possible hypotheses you want to
consider.4 In the example just described, MLE was the method used and the assumption was that tosses
are i.i.d. If MLE were used in the context of testing whether tosses are independent of each other, the
number of heads would not be a sufficient statistic; information about the exact sequence would
additionally be relevant.
With these ideas in mind, let’s return to the example of Evelyn Marie Adams’ double win in the
New Jersey lottery. If we use probabilistic modus tollens, the weakened description of the data
given in (2) is not endorsed by the idea of sufficient statistics. The point is that shifting from (1) to (2)
makes a difference in the context of probabilistic modus tollens, whereas shifting from (4) to (5) does
not matter from the point of view of MLE under the i.i.d. assumption. Shifting from a highly specific
description of the data to one that is logically weaker is often permissible,5 but that is not enough to
justify the sophisticate’s pattern of reasoning about Adams.
The problem of whether to weaken one’s description of the evidence, and how to do so, is a
problem for the sophisticate, not for the naïve. However, there is a second problem that both must face
-- both rely on probabilistic modus tollens. This is a form of inference that no one should touch with a
stick. The similarity between modus tollens and its probabilistic analog may suggest that the latter must
be legitimate because the former is deductively valid; however, this is an illusion. Modus tollens says
that if H entails O and O turns out to be false, that you may conclude that H is false. Probabilistic modus
tollens says that if Pr(O│H) is very high and O turns out to be false, that you may likewise conclude that
H is false. My beef with probabilistic modus tollens is not that the conclusion does not deductively
follow form the premises. I’ve drawn a double line between premises and conclusion in Prob-MT below
to acknowledge that this is so, but that isn’t enough to rescue the principle. Rather, my objection is that
the occurrence of an event that a hypothesis says is very improbable is often evidence in favor of the
hypothesis, not evidence against it. What is evidence in favor of H cannot be a sufficient reason for
rejecting H.
(MT) If H then O.
Pr(O│H) is very high.
Consider, for example, the use of DNA testing in forensic contexts. DNA evidence can be used
to draw an inference about whether two individuals are related (for example, in paternity suits) or to
draw an inference about whether a person suspected of a crime was at the crime scene. In both cases,
you begin by determining whether two DNA samples match. This may seem to be a context in which
probabilistic modus tollens is plausible. Suppose two individuals match at the loci examined, and that
the probability of this match is only, say, 6.5 x 10-38, if the two individuals are unrelated. This may
seem to provide ample grounds for rejecting the hypothesis that the individuals are unrelated. However,
what is missing from this exercise is any representation of how probable the data would be if the
Notice also that the argument that appeals to (3) to show that the number of heads is a sufficient statistic depends on using
the likelihood ratio as the relevant method for comparing the two estimates. If the difference in the likelihoods were used
instead, the corresponding equality would not be true. How one measures weight of evidence matters; see Fitelson (1999) for
further discussion.
Notice that the idea of a sufficient statistic says that you are permitted to shift to a weaker description of the data, not that
you are obliged to do so.
individuals were related. Crow (2000, pp. 65-67) discusses an example of this sort in which two
individuals match at 13 loci for genes that happen to be rare. Crow calculated the above figure of 6.5 x
10-38 as the probability of the data under the hypothesis that the individuals are unrelated. However, it
also is true that if the individuals were sibs, the probability of the match would be 7.7 x 10-32. Surely it
would be absurd to apply probabilistic modus tollens twice over, first rejecting the hypothesis that the
two individuals are unrelated and then rejecting the hypothesis that they are related. In fact, the data
lend support to the hypothesis that the two individuals are sibs; it would be wrong to use the data to
reject that hypothesis. In this case, the evidence favors the hypothesis that the two individuals are sibs
over the hypothesis that they are unrelated, because the observations are more probable under the first
hypothesis than they are under the second. This is the Law of Likelihood (Hacking 1965, Edwards
1973, Royall 1997). It isn’t the absolute value of the probability of the data under a single hypothesis
that matters; rather, the relevant issue is how two such probabilities compare. The Law of Likelihood
allows for the possibility that evidence may differentially support a hypothesis even though the
hypothesis says that the evidence was very improbable. Notice also that the Law of Likelihood avoids
an embarrassing question that defenders of probabilistic modus tollens must answer – how improbable is
improbable enough for the hypothesis to be rejected? Even defenders of modus tollens have had to
admit that this question has only a conventional answer.
What I have dubbed probabilistic modus tollens is known in statistics as Fisher’s test of
significance. According to Fisher (1959, p. 39), you have two choices when a hypothesis says that your
observations are very improbable. You can say that the hypothesis is false or that something very
improbable has just occurred. Fisher was right about the disjunction. However, what does not follow is
that the hypothesis is false; in fact, as just noted, it doesn’t even follow that you have obtained evidence
against the hypothesis (Hacking 1965, Edwards 1973, Royall 1997).
When the naïve and the sophisticated reasoned about whether Evelyn Marie Adams’ double win
was a Mere Coincidence, both helped themselves to probabilistic modus tollens. We need to understand
this problem without appealing to that faulty inference principle. The sophisticated also seemed to allow
themselves to violate the Principle of Total Evidence. They were happy to substitute a weaker
description of the data for a stronger one, even though that changed the conclusion that the rule of
inference being used instructs one to draw. We need to explain why the naïve are wrong to think that
nothing is a Mere Coincidence without violating that principle. This may seem to return us to square
one, but it does not – at least not entirely. There is something right about the sophisticate’s demand that
the data about Evelyn Adams be placed in a wider perspective. We need to consider not just her double
win, but the track records that others have had and whether she bought tickets in other lotteries that did
not turn out to be winners. However, moving to this wider data set does not involve weakening the
initial description of the data, but adding to it; the key is to make the data stronger, not weaker.
Coinciding Observations, Coincidence Explanations, and Reichenbach’s Principle of the Common
Before I continue, some regimentation of vocabulary is in order. First of all, what is a
coincidence? Diaconis and Mosteller (1989, p. 853) suggest a working definition: a coincidence is “a
surprising concurrence of events, perceived as meaningfully related, with no apparent causal
connection.” This is a good start, but it does have the implication that whether something is a
coincidence is a subjective matter. There are two elements in this definition that we should separate.
First, there is the idea of coinciding observations. When you and I meet on a street corner, our locations
coincide. The same is true of the east coast of South American and the west coast of Africa – their
wiggles, geological strata, and biogeography coincide. And perhaps it doesn’t offend too much against
the rules of English usage to say that the person who won the New Jersey lottery in one week
“coincides” with the person who won it a few weeks later. Observations coincide when they are similar
in some respect. There is no need to be precise about how much (or what kind of) similarity is required
for two observations to coincide, since the main point is to distinguish the observations from a kind of
hypothesis that might be offered to explain them. Here we need the idea of a coincidence explanation.
A coincidence explanation asserts that the observations are not causally connected. By this I mean that
neither causes the other and they do not have a common cause. Thus, to say that it is a coincidence that
two events are similar is to suggest a certain kind of explanation; each event was produced via a
separate and independent causal process. To say that the similarity of the observations is a coincidence
does not mean that the similarity is inexplicable. Understood in this way, it is an objective matter
whether a given coincidence explanation is true, assuming as I will that causation is an objective matter.
With coinciding observations distinguished from coincidence explanations, we can kick away the
ladder and see that coinciding observations are not required for the question to arise of whether a
hypothesis of Causal Connectedness is superior to a hypothesis of Mere Coincidence. We sometimes
need to consider this choice when the observations exhibit a pattern of dissimilarity. Cartwright (1994,
p. 117) suggests the following example. Suppose I go shopping each week at a grocery store with $20
to spend.. I spend some portion of the $20 on meat and the rest on vegetables. When you observe my
cash register receipts over the course of a year, you see that I rarely if ever spend exactly $10 on the one
and exactly $10 on the other. The dollar amounts do not coincide. But the fact that they always sum to
$20 is not a coincidence. They are two effects of a common cause. So observations need not be similar
for the question of coincidence to arise. The key idea, of course, is correlation, which can be either
positive or negative. Given an observed correlation (positive or negative), the question is whether the
correlation should be explained by saying that the correlates are causally connected or by saying that the
correlation is a mere coincidence.
Reichenbach (1956) elevated our natural preference for the hypothesis of causal connection to
the status of a metaphysical principle.6 His principle of the common cause says that whenever two
events are correlated, the explanation must be that the two correlates are causally connected. This
principle survives in more recent work on causal modeling and directed graphs (Spirtes, Glymour, and
Shines 2001; Pearl 2000). I think it is better to treat Reichenbach’s idea as an epistemological principle
that should be evaluated in terms of the Law of Likelihood (Sober 1988a, 1988b). The question is
whether a hypothesis of Causal Connection renders the observations more probable than does the
hypothesis of Mere Coincidence. When this is so, the evidence favors the first hypothesis over the
second; it does not guarantee that the Causal Connection hypothesis must be true.
Reichenbach was able to show that the fact that two events are correlated deductively follows
from a certain type of Common Cause model, one in which the postulated common cause raises the
probability of each effect and renders them conditionally independent. Viewed from the point of view
of the Law of Likelihood, Reichenbach’s argument can be adapted to cases in which the explanandum is
I do not use the term “metaphysical” here in the pejorative sense associated with logical positivism. Rather, I use the term
in contrast with “epistemological.” The former has to do with the way the world is; the latter has to do with the beliefs we
should form about the world.
the coinciding of two token events, rather than the correlation of two event types (Sober 1988b). And
the mismatch of two events sometimes points towards a common cause explanation and away from a
separate cause explanation, depending again on the details of how the common cause and separate cause
hypotheses are formulated. Thus, in a wide range of cases, the question of whether it is a mere
coincidence that the two events E1 and E2 occurred can be addressed by comparing the likelihood of the
hypothesis of Causal Connection with the likelihood of the hypothesis of Mere Coincidence.
The Limits of Likelihood
The Law of Likelihood is a useful tool in the project of reasoning about coincidences, but it
doesn’t provide the complete epistemology we need. The difficulty is that likelihood considerations
favor hypotheses of causal connection in contexts in which this seems to be the wrong diagnosis of
which of the competing hypothesis is better. Evelyn Adams won the lottery twice. Under the hypothesis
that these events were causally unconnected and that each win was due to a random draw from the
tickets purchased, the probability of the observations is very small. It is easy to construct hypotheses of
Causal Connection that have much higher likelihoods. One of them says that her winning the first time
was a random event, but that the occurrence of that first win guaranteed that she would win the next
time. Another says that both lotteries were rigged so that she would win. This latter hypothesis has a
likelihood than which none greater can be conceived; it has a likelihood of unity. The Law of
Likelihood seems to endorse the naïve impulse to see conspiracies everywhere, to always think that a
hypothesis of Causal Connection is better than the hypothesis of Mere Coincidence.
Bayesianism provides a natural solution to this type of problem for a wide range of cases.
Consider, for example, the case of Sally Clark (Dawid 2002). Her first child died unexpectedly when
Clark was the only adult at home; this was initially considered a case of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
(SIDS). Her second child, born the next year, died in similar circumstances. Clark was then arrested
and charged with murdering the two children. At the trial, a professor of pediatrics testified that the
probability that two children in a family both die of SIDS is about 1 in 73 million. He arrived at this
number by using 1 in 8500 as his estimate of the probability of one child’s dying of SIDS, and then,
assuming that the two deaths would occur independently, he squared that figure. Clark was convicted.
The conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal.
What was the jury’s reasoning that led them to reach their verdict of guilty? One may speculate
that they viewed the SIDS hypothesis as just too improbable. Perhaps they assumed that lightening
never strikes twice in the same place and then opted for the only alternative they had before them, that
Clark murdered her children. This may sound like probabilistic modus tollens, but it is not. That form
of inference bids us consider whether Pr(O│SIDS) is tiny. The reconstruction I have offered has the
jury reasoning on the basis of their conviction that Pr(SIDS) is tiny.
I want to describe a Bayesian analysis of this problem. However, the details of the case are
rather complicated, so I’m going to simplify in various ways to bring out the ideas that are of general
epistemological relevance. I mentioned that an expert witness calculated the probability that the two
children would die of SIDS by squaring the probability that one of them would die. He was treating the
two deaths as independent events, but it is perfectly possible that they are not independent. Perhaps
there is some genetic trait they inherited from their parents that predisposed both to die of SIDS; perhaps
the environment they shared made them more susceptible to SIDS. If either of these possibilities is true,
then the SIDS hypothesis should be conceptualized as saying that the two deaths are causally connected,
not that the two deaths are a Mere Coincidence. An effect of thinking of the SIDS hypothesis in this
way would be that the estimate of the probability of the observations under that hypothesis is somewhere
between 1 in 8500 and 1 in 73 million. For the sake of our investigation, however, I’m going to view
the SIDS hypothesis as saying that the two deaths were independent; understood in this way, the SIDS
hypothesis says that it is a mere coincidence that the two children both died. This unrealistic assumption
will make it harder, not easier, to show that SIDS has the higher posterior probability than the
hypothesis that Clark murdered the two children by smothering them. The murder hypothesis says that
the deaths are causally connected – that both children died was no coincidence.
If the evidence in this case were just the fact that both children died, both hypotheses would of
course have likelihoods of unity. However, there was a great deal more evidence than this, including
many details from the medical examinations of the children. For example, there was the observation
that both children had hemorrhages in their eyes and brains. This particular datum apparently does not
discriminate between the two hypotheses; smothering causes hemorrhages, but if the children died of
SIDS, Clark’s attempts to resuscitate them would also probably produce hemorrhages. So let us suppose
that Pr(hemorrhages│SIDS) ≈ Pr(hemorrhages│smothered by Clark). We would need to consider the
other observations as well, and assess the likelihoods of the two hypotheses in the light of each. Let us
suppose, for the sake of argument, that
Pr(O│Murder) ≈ Pr(O│SIDS),
where O represents all the observations available. For a likelihoodist, this inequality is all there is to say
on the matter – the evidence does not discriminate (much) between the two hypotheses. However, a
Bayesian wants to know how the hypotheses compare in terms of their posterior probabilities;
likelihoods are relevant to Bayesians only as a means to that end. The relevant Bayesian consideration
can be read off of the following consequence of Bayes’s theorem:
------------------ = ------------------ x -------------- .
Pr(O│Murder) Pr(Murder)
Note that the likelihood ratio appears on the right-hand side, but so does the ratio of the prior
probabilities. How is that second ratio to be evaluated? Assuming that two SIDS deaths occurring in a
family will occur independently, then, as already mentioned, Pr(SIDS) = 1/73 x 10-6. What is the prior
for the hypothesis that Clark murdered both her children? Dawid (2002, p. 76) reports that there were
six babies murdered in the UK in 1997 out of 642,093 births. He takes this information to justify an
an estimate of the probability that one baby is murdered of 1.1 x 10-5. There are several reasons to
wonder about this estimate. First, what is calculated is the prior probability of murder, not of matricide,
or of matricide by smothering, so the estimate is in that respect too high. On the other hand, since the
calculation is based on the frequency of reported murders, the estimate is in that respect presumably too
low. Anyway, using this prior for one murder and assuming that multiple infanticides occur
independently in families, Dawid obtains a prior for Clark’s having murdered both her children of
Pr(Murder) = 1 in 8.4 billion. Of course, just as was true of SIDS, it is far from obvious that the two
murders in a family occur independently. The effect of this independence assumption is to make the
prior probability assigned to the murder hypothesis lower than it perhaps ought to be. Setting this point
to one side, let us consider the implications of the two prior probabilities.
The ratio of the two priors is
Pr(SIDS)/Pr(Murder) ≈ (1 in 73 million)/(1 in 8.4 billion) = 115.
In other words, before the evidence pertaining to Sally Clark is considered, the SIDS hypothesis has
a prior that is about 115 times as large as the Murder hypothesis. Thus, if Pr(Murder│O) is to exceed
Pr(SIDS│O), then Pr(O│Murder) must be more than 115 times as great as Pr(O│SIDS). This places a
very high “standard of proof” on the evidence. It must overwhelmingly favor Murder over SIDS (in the
sense of the Law of Likelihood). Given the assumption that the evidence was fairly equivocal, this
standard of proof was not met, not even approximately. Thus the jury should have declined to convict,
since SIDS was more probable than Murder, based on all the evidence.7
The Limits of Bayesianism
One satisfying element in this type of Bayesian analysis (never mind the exact numbers used in
the calculation) is that the prior probabilities are estimated from frequency data; they aren’t mere
summaries of someone’s subjective degrees of belief. This allows one to view the prior probabilities as
objective quantities. Bayesian comparisons of hypotheses of Causal Connection and hypotheses of
Mere Coincidence are much less compelling when they depend on prior probabilities that can only be
interpreted subjectively.
In discussing the example of Wegener and continental drift, I noted earlier that the hypothesis of
Continental Drift has a much higher likelihood than the hypothesis of Continental Stasis:
Pr(Data│Drift) >> Pr(Data│Stasis). However, this doesn’t settle the matter of which hypothesis has the
higher posterior probability. To decide that question, we have to say something about the values of the
prior probabilities, Pr(Drift) and Pr(Stasis). Geophysicists argued that it was impossible for the
continents to plough through the ocean floor. Biologists replied that this, or something like it, had to be
possible, since the data are overwhelming. One aspect of the controversy that retarded the achievement
of consensus was the way in which Wegener formulated his hypothesis. He could have restricted
himself to the claim that the continents were once in contact, and not hazarded a guess about how they
moved apart. He did not do this; as noted, he argued that the continents move across the ocean floor.
He turned out to be right about the general claim, but wrong about the specifics. The continents don’t
move across the ocean floor. Rather, they and the ocean floor move together, riding on plates that slide
across viscous material deeper inside the earth.
A Bayesian will represent the disagreement between critics and defenders of the drift hypothesis
by saying that they had different prior probabilities. Since the likelihoods overwhelmingly favor Drift
There is an additional, nonepistemic, element in this story that bears mentioning. The standards for conviction are not
simply that Pr(Murder│O) > Pr(notMurder│O); that could be true if the posterior probabilities had values of 0.51 and 0.49,
respectively. What is required is that evidence point to the Murder hypothesis “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which
presumably requires that Pr(Murder│O) >> Pr(notMurder│O); how large this gap must be is an ethical and political matter,
not a matter that is narrowly epistemic.
over Stasis, the critics must have assigned to the drift hypothesis a prior probability that was incredibly
small. Were they rational to do so? Or should they have assigned the hypothesis a higher prior, one
that, though still small, allowed the data to give the drift hypothesis the higher posterior probability? It
is hard to see how there can be an objective answer to that question. The prior probabilities were not
estimated from frequency data. It’s not as if a team of scientists visited a large number of planets, and
recorded in each case whether the continents moved. Had they done so, they could have estimated from
this data how probable it is that the continents moved here on earth. Of course, there’s another source of
objective probabilities – ones that are derived from a well-confirmed theory. Did geophysicists have
such a theory? If so, what probability did that theory entail for the hypothesis of continental drift? If the
theory entails that continental drift is impossible, the Bayesian has a problem. The problem derives
from the fact that a hypothesis assigned a prior probability of zero cannot have its probability increase,
no matter what the evidence is. This is why Bayesians usually advise us to assign priors of zero only to
truth functional contradictions. Following this advice, we should decline to assign continental drift a
prior of zero, even if our best confirmed theories say that drift is impossible. But what small prior
should one then choose? If we choose a value that is extremely tiny, drift will have a lower posterior
probability than stasis, even though drift has the higher likelihood. If it prior probability is assigneed a
value that is a bit bigger, though still very small, drift will end up with the larger posterior probability.
No wonder the two communities were so divided. It is hard to see how the Bayesian can help us decide
what the correct assignment of prior probabilities is. Different groups of scientists had different degrees
of belief; that appears to be all one can say.
Another scientific problem exhibits the same pattern. Consider the fact that the correlation of
the phases of the moon and the tides were known for hundreds of years. It was not until Newton’s theory
of gravity that a systematic explanation of the correlation was developed. Newton’s theory says that the
two events are causally connected – the moon exerts a gravitational attraction on the earth’s surface,
with the result that there are tides. It is an objective matter that this hypothesis of causal connection has
a higher likelihood than the hypothesis that says that it is a Mere Coincidence that the tides and the
phases of the moon coincide: Pr(data│Newtonian Theory) >> Pr(data│Mere Coincidence). But does
that mean that the Newtonian theory is more probable than the hypothesis that the moon and the tides
are causally unconnected? That depends on one’s choice of priors. If Pr(Newtonian Theory) isn’t
enormously tiny, then Pr(Newtonian Theory│data) > Pr(Mere Coincidence│data). But if Newtonian
theory is assigned a small enough prior, the theory will not be more probable than the hypothesis of
Mere Coincidence. Unfortunately, there appears to be no objective basis for assigning priors in one way
rather than another.
Does a Bayesian analysis provide a convincing explanation of why Evelyn Adams’ double win
on the New Jersey lottery should be thought of as a Mere Coincidence? We need priors on the two
hypotheses. Does any of us have frequency data on how often state lotteries, and the lottery in New
Jersey specifically, are fixed? Surely if there were fixes, the parties would have every reason to prevent
them from becoming public. How often they will succeed is another matter. My hunch is that the
slogan “the truth will out” is an exaggeration, and how often the truth outs is more or less unknown.
For this reason, we should be somewhat reluctant to interpret absence of evidence as evidence of
absence.8 I do not say that there is no objective basis for assigning prior probabilities here. However, it
would be nice if an analysis of this problem could be developed that did not require this.
There is an observation selection effect here; for discussion, see Sober (2004).
Models for a Larger Data Set
Imagine that we have data on all the people who bought tickets in all the New Jersey lotteries
that have ever occurred, as well as information on who won what. Evelyn Adams’s double win is part
of this large data set, but only a small part. I want to consider a variety of models that might be offered
for these multiple lotteries. What I mean by a “model” will be clarified in due course. To simplify
discussion, I’ll assume that there is just one winner in each lottery.
The first model I’ll consider says that each lottery is fair – each ticket in a lottery has the same
probability of winning:
If ticket t is purchased in lottery i (1 ≤ i ≤ r), Pr(t wins│t was purchased in
lottery i) = αi.
The FAIR model is an r-fold conjunction:
Pr(t wins│t was purchased in lottery 1) = α1.
Pr(t wins│t was purchased in lottery 2) = α2.
Pr(t wins│t was purchased in lottery r) = αr.
By assigning a different parameter to each lottery, FAIR allows, but does not require, that the
probability a given ticket has of winning one lottery differs from the probability another ticket has of
winning another. Notice also that this model doesn’t say what the probability is of a ticket’s winning
any lottery. Those probabilities must be estimated from the data. In each lottery i, there are ni tickets
sold and exactly one ticket was the winner. This means that the maximum likelihood estimate (the
MLE) of αi is 1/ni .
The second model I’ll describe is more complicated than FAIR. It assigns a separate parameter
to each player-lottery pair:
If ticket t is purchased in lottery i (1 ≤ i ≤ r) by player j (1 ≤ j ≤ s),
Pr(t wins│t was purchased in lottery i by player j) = βij.
This model is a conjunction that contains r(s) conjuncts. It allows for the possibility that some or all the
lotteries are unfair, but does not require this. The MLE of βij for player j on lottery i is 0 if the player
lost, and 1/nij if the player won, where nij is the number of tickets the player purchased on that lottery.
The third model I’ll consider is even more complicated. Like the one just described, it treats each
player-lottery pair as a separate problem, but it introduces the possibility that different tickets purchased
by the same player on the same lottery may have different probabilities of winning.
(PLT) If ticket t is the kth ticket purchased (1 ≤ k ≤ n) in lottery i (1 ≤ i ≤ r) by player j (1 ≤ j ≤ s),
Pr(t wins│t is the kth ticket purchased in lottery i by player j) = γijk.
This model is a conjunction with rsn conjuncts. Notice that FAIR has the smallest number of parameters
of the models described so far, and that PL and PLT both say that each lottery might be unfair but need
not be.
The fourth and last model I’ll consider (not that there aren’t many others), involves circling back
to the beginning to find a model that is even simpler than FAIR. FAIR allows that tickets in different
lotteries may have different probabilities of winning. This is why that model has r parameters in it, one
for each lottery. If we constrain tickets in all lotteries to have the same probability of winning, we
obtain the following one-parameter model:
If ticket t is purchased in any lottery, Pr(t wins│t was purchased in a lottery) = δ.
In a sense, this model says the lotteries have a greater degree of “fairness” than FAIR itself asserts.
According to FAIR, players who buy a ticket in one lottery might have better odds than players who buy
a ticket in another. The ONE model stipulates that this isn’t so – every ticket in every lottery is in the
same boat.
These different conceptualizations of how the lotteries work are “models” in the sense of that
term that is standard in statistics. Each contains adjustable parameters whose values can be estimated
from the data. To clarify how these models are related to each other, let me describe two of their
properties. First, notice that the models are nested; they are linked to each other by the relation of
logical implication:
Logically stronger models are special cases of models that are logically weaker. A stronger model can
be obtained from a weaker one by stipulating that various parameters in the weaker model have equal
values. Because of this, FAIR cannot be more probable than either PL or PLT, regardless of what the
data are. Bayesians who want to argue that one of the simpler models has a higher prior or posterior
probability than a model that is more complex might reply that the right way to set up models is to
ensure that they are incompatible with each other; they should not be nested. This imperative requires
that we compare ONE with FAIR*, PL*, and PLT*, where each of the starred models stipulates that
different parameters must have different values. Now there is no logical barrier to stipulating, for
example, that FAIR has a higher prior probability than either PL* or PLT*. However, it is questionable
whether there is a convincing reason for thinking that this stipulation is true. Is it really more probable
that all tickets have exactly the same probability of winning a lottery than that they differ, if only by a
little? I myself think it is very improbable that lotteries are exactly fair; I think they are no better than
so-called fair coins. I think coins in the real world have probabilities of landing heads that are
approximately ½, not exactly ½ . The other property of these models that I want to mention concerns
the likelihoods they have when adjustable parameters are replaced by their maximum likelihood
estimates. What I want to consider, for example, is not Pr(data│FAIR), but Pr[data│L(FAIR)], where
L(FAIR) denotes the instance of FAIR obtained by assigning values to its parameters that make the data
most probable. The point of interest here is that L(FAIR) can’t have a higher likelihood than either
L(PL) or L(PLT).9 Increasing the number of adjustable parameters allows the resulting, more complex,
model to fit the data better. In fact, the two most complex models, PL and PLT, are so complex that
L(FAIR) can’t have a higher likelihood than L(PL*) or L(PLT*), either.
L(PL) and L(PLT) both say that Evelyn Adams was certain to win the two lotteries she did win, and that
the winners of the other lotteries also had probabilities of unity of winning theirs. L(PLT) goes even
farther; it says, not just that Adams was certain to win each of those two lotteries, but that it was a
certainty that the tickets that won the two lotteries for her would do so. L(PL) doesn’t go that far; if
Adams purchased multiple tickets on one of the lotteries she won, L(PL) says that those tickets had
equal probabilities of winning.
Comparing these models leads to a point that I think is of the first importance in our quest to
understand how we should reason about coincidences. The naïve think that nothing is a Mere
Coincidence. And the explanations they suggest for coinciding observations often seem to be very
simple. For example, the naïve might explain Adams’ double win by saying that the two lotteries were
fixed to insure those outcomes. It would seem perverse to complain that this is a complicated
explanation. What’s so complicated about it? However, if we view this explanation as deriving from a
model whose parameters are estimated from the data, and if we require that model to address a data set
that is considerably more inclusive than these two facts about Adams, it turns out that the model that the
naïve are implicitly using is vastly complex. They seem to be using a model that, when fitted to the
data, says that what occurred had to occur. The hypothesis that all state lotteries have been FAIR is
much simpler. Understanding the epistemic relevance of simplicity would throw light on the problem
at hand.
Simplicity and Model Selection
Not only do we need to consider a larger data set instead of focusing exclusively on Adams’s
double win; we also must adjust our conception of what the goals are in model evaluation. The point is
not just to find a model that in some sense summarizes the data we have, but a model that will do a good
job predicting data that we do not yet have. For example, suppose we were to use data on past New
Jersey lotteries to compare models where our goal is to figure out which model will allow us to make the
most accurate predictions about next year’s lotteries. Of course, there’s no getting around the Humean
point that we have no assurance that future lotteries will play by the rules that governed past lotteries.
But let us assume that this is true. How can we use the old data to estimate how well models will do in
predicting new data?
Scientists who work on empirical problems by trying out multiple models inevitably learn that
hugely complicated models often do a poor job predicting new data when fitted to old data. These
models are able to accommodate the old data; as noted earlier, adding parameters to a model will allow
it to fit the data better, and if M is sufficiently complex, Pr[old data│L(M)] = 1. However, Pr[new
data│L(M)] will often be very low, or, more precisely, the distance between the predicted values and the
observed values in the new data will often be great. This doesn’t lead scientists to think that they should
use the simplest possible model to make predictions. Rather, some sort of trade-off is needed – the best
model of the candidate models considered will embody the most nearly optimal trade-off between its fit
to old data and its simplicity. How is that optimal balancing to be ascertained? Is it a matter of art, but
not of science? Must young scientists simply work away at a given problem and gradually develop a
feel for what works? Is this the “tacit dimension” that Polanyi (1966) discussed? Well, there’s no
substitute for practical experience. However, there is, in addition, a body of results in mathematical
statistics that shows that it is not a mere coincidence that very complicated models often make very
inaccurate predictions. One central result in this literature is a theorem due to H. Akaike (1973), which
says that
An unbiased estimate of the predictive accuracy of model M ≈ log[Pr(data │L(M))] – k,
where k is the number of adjustable parameters in M. Akaike’s theorem shows how good fit-to-data, as
measured by the log-likelihood, improves expected predictive accuracy, while complexity, as measured
by the number of adjustable parameters, diminishes that expectation. It also specifies a precise rate-ofexchange between log-likelihood and simplicity. It tells you how much of an improvement in fit-to-data
is needed for the shift from a simpler to a more complex model to embody a net improvement in
expected predictive accuracy.
Akaike’s theorem is the basis for the Akaike Information Criterion (AIC), which scores a model
by computing -2[log[Pr(data │L(M))] – k]; the best model will have the lowest AIC value. There are
other model selection criteria on the market. Most of them are intended to help one identify models that
are predictively accurate, and most of them include a penalty for complexity;10 for discussion, see
Burnham and Anderson (2002). There seems to be a broad consensus that different model selection
criteria are appropriate for different inference problems.
If we use AIC to evaluate different models of the New Jersey lotteries, what will be the upshot?
That will depend on the data, but not only on the data. L(FAIR) will have a lower log-likelihood than
L(LP) and L(LPT), but that doesn’t ensure that FAIR has the best AIC score. The reason is that FAIR is
far simpler than LP and LPT. It would not be surprising if FAIR scored better overall than these two
more complicated models, but I cannot assert that this is true, since I have not looked at the data. But
the epistemologically relevant point is visible without us having to carry out this set of calculations.
FAIR may be a better model of the New Jersey lotteries than models like LP and LPT, which say that
one or all of the lotteries may have been rigged, even though L(FAIR) has a lower likelihood than L(LP)
and L(LPT).
The model selection framework is not a magic bullet that will instantaneously convert the naïve
into sophisticates. The naïve might reject the goal of predictive accuracy; they also may insist on
focusing just on Adams’ double win, and refuse to consider the other data that constitute the history of
the New Jersey Lottery. If they do so, they will have built a mighty fortress. If you look just at the
double win, and don’t want anything besides a hypothesis of maximum likelihood, there is no denying
that the hypothesis that the two lotteries were twice fixed to ensure that Adams would win beats the
pants off the hypothesis that the two lotteries were fair.11 But if you are prepared to ask the data to help
you decide among the models just described, it may turn out that the FAIR model is superior to the PL
Cross validation makes no explicit mention of simplicity, but shares with AIC the goal of finding models that will be
predictively accurate. It is interesting that there is a form of cross-validation (“take-one-out” cross validation) that is
asymptotically equivalent with AIC (Stone 1977).
It might be suggested that the hypothesis that the two lotteries were fixed to ensure that Adams would win is a hypothesis
that would occur to you only after you observe Adams’ double win, and that it is a rule of scientific inference that hypotheses
must be formulated before the data are gathered to test them. This temporal requirement is a familiar idea in frequentist
statistics. For discussion, see Hitchcock and Sober (2004). It is a point in favor of the model selection approach that one
does not have to invoke this temporal requirement to explain what is wrong with the PL and the PLT models.
and the PLT models. It is interesting that you don’t have to evaluate the prior probabilities of PL and
PLT to see what is wrong with these models.
As noted before, it may be possible to provide an objective Bayesian treatment of Adams’ double
win. Even though the FIX hypothesis has a higher likelihood than the FAIR hypothesis, perhaps there is
a way to justify an assignment of prior probabilities that has the consequence that the FAIR hypothesis
has the higher posterior probability. I used the lottery example to illustrate how the model selection
approach works because it is easy to describe a variety of models. The reader may wonder, however,
whether this approach can be applied to problems in which there seems to be little hope of providing
objective prior probabilities. This is important, if the virtue of that approach is that it takes over where
Bayesianism leaves off. In fact, I think that the two examples I gave before of inference problems in
which objective priors are not available can be fruitfully represented as problems of model selection.
The examples, recall, were Wegener’s explanation of the resemblance of the coasts of South America
and Africa and Newton’s explanation of the correlation of the phases of the moon and the tides. The key
to the analysis in both cases is the fact that unifying explanations, which postulate a Causal Connection
between the correlated events, use models that are simpler than those that articulate the hypothesis that
the correlation as a Mere Coincidence. The unified models include parameters that apply to the two
correlated events, whereas the disunified models have different parameters for the two correlates
(Forster and Sober 1994; Sober 2003).
Let me give a new example that illustrates the usefulness of model selection in a context in
which one would be hard pressed to invoke objective prior probabilities. Consider the fact that iguanas
are green and so are fir trees. Is this a Mere Coincidence or should the coinciding observations be
explained by a hypothesis of Causal Connection? Evolutionary biologists will tell you that the similarity
is a homoplasy, not a homology. By this they mean that the features were independently derived in two
separate lineages, not inherited from a common ancestor. In other words, the similarity is a coincidence.
Biologists favor this explanation because they place this problem into a larger context -- one in which
they take into account other characteristics and other taxa. The usual framework in which this type of
problem is analyzed (regardless of whether cladistic parsimony or likelihood is used) assumes that there
is no horizontal transfer – that a descendant species receives its traits from its most recent ancestor. But
if horizontal transferred is allowed as a possibility, why shouldn’t one explain every similarity by
postulating a causal connection? Perhaps iguanas and fir trees didn’t inherit their green coloration from
a common ancestor by vertical transfer, but why not claim that the similarity was due to horizontal
transfer? This is where a model selection approach may be fruitful. A model that allows for both
horizontal and vertical transfer will be more complex than a model that is otherwise similar, except for
the fact that it allows only for vertical transfer…
Having come this far – from probabilistic modus tollens to the Law of Likelihood to
Bayesianism and then to model selection – let’s return to an idea that I mentioned towards the
beginning. This is Diaconis and Mosteller’s (1989, p. 859) Law of Truly Large Numbers, which says
that “with a large enough sample, any outrageous thing is likely to happen.” This principle implicitly
assumes a certain type of model. As Diaconis and Mosteller are well aware, it isn’t true in a suitably
arranged deterministic model that any outrageous thing is likely to happen with enough trials. The
heuristic value of their principle is that it recommends that we look at the world in a certain way – we
should use models that say that coinciding events can and do occur as Mere Coincidences, and have very
high probabilities of doing so when the sample size is sufficiently large. But what are the rules of
inference that recommend such models above others? The Law of Truly Large Numbers is not intended
to address this question.
The Law of Likelihood allows us to compare hypotheses of Mere Coincidence with hypotheses
of Causal Connection, but seems unable to identify a respect in which the first type of hypothesis is
superior to the second. This is especially clear when the Causal Connection Hypothesis is deterministic
and the Mere Coincidence hypothesis introduces the notion of chance. The Bayesian response to this
problem is to assign prior probabilities. Sometimes these can be justified by appeal to evidence; at other
times, they seem to be merely subjective. It is in the latter kind of case that model selection criteria
seem like a breath of fresh air. However, it also is interesting to consider inference problems in which
prior probabilities can be based on evidence, and the two approaches still seem to disagree.
Some years ago, cognitive psychologists discussed the phenomenon of “hot hands” in sports.
Everyone with even the most superficial familiarity with professional basketball believes that players
occasionally have “hot hands.” When players are hot, their chance of scoring improves, and team-mates
try to feed the ball to them. However, a statistical analysis of scoring patterns in the NBA yielded the
result that one cannot reject the null hypothesis that each player has a constant probability of scoring
throughout the season (Gilovich et al. 1985). Statistically sophisticated scientists concluded that belief
in hot hands is a “cognitive illusion.” A scoring streak is not due to the player’s getting hot, but is a
Mere Coincidence. Basketball mavens reacted to this statistical pronouncement with total incredulity.
What would a Bayesian analysis of this problem look like? Surely we have lots of evidence
that physical injury, influenza, upset stomach, lack of sleep, and migraine impairs athletic performance.
The idea that a player’s probability of scoring through the season is absolutely constant should therefore
be assigned a very low prior probability. For this reason, Bayesianism seems predestined to side with
common sense on this issue. I do not see this as a defect in Bayesianism, nor do I have any sympathy
with the argument that defends the null hypothesis by pointing out that the data do not sanction its
rejection -- is this probabilistic modus tollens rearing its ugly head again? Even so, the model selection
framework provides a very different and useful perspective
Recall that the goal in model selection is to find models that will be predictively accurate. It is
an important philosophical fact about this framework that false models can sometimes be better
predictors than true ones (Sober 2002). Bayesians are right to say that the null hypothesis has very low
prior and posterior probabilities. The idea that players never waiver in their scoring probabilities, even a
little, is preposterous. However, this doesn’t settle which model will make the most accurate
predictions. Presumably, the truth about basketball players is very complex. Their scoring probabilities
change as subtle responses to a large number of interacting causes. Given this complexity, players and
coaches may make better predictions by relying on simplified models. Hot hands may be a reality, but
trying to predict when players have hot hands may be a fool’s errand.
I thank Dan Hausman and Wouter Meijs for their help.
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